Data science is a growing field that now touches almost every industry. In clinical health care and medical research, advanced medical records systems generate more health care data than ever before. The same is true of wearables, medical imaging systems, telemedicine, payor records, disease records, medical research, administrative records and more. This has led to an explosion of opportunities in emerging fields such as health information management, health care data analytics and health IT—all of which leverage cutting-edge tools like machine learning and prescriptive analytics to optimize health care delivery and improve patient care.
This combination of health care and data technology is called health informatics. It is still a relatively new field, but one that is expected to grow significantly over the next decade. That growth is already creating new opportunities for professionals in health care, data management, business intelligence and information technology who want to do interesting work, use the latest digital technology and enhance innovation in medicine and patient care.
Whether you work on the frontlines of health care and want to make a career pivot or you work outside of health care and want to move into the field, studying health informatics can help you make an immediate impact in medicine. This guide explores what informatics is, why people launch careers in this field and how the Master of Science in Health Informatics (MSHI) offered by the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences will prepare you to enter this evolving field.
Health informaticists use technology and data to improve patient care, research, pharmaceutical and device development and consumer health. Much like data scientists, they look at massive data sets to understand what’s happening in the present and make predictions about the future. That said, don’t confuse health informatics with health data analytics. Informaticists and health care data analysts both work closely with Big Data to optimize everything from processes to the patient experience, but there are notable distinctions between them.
The primary difference lies in each field’s relationship with the data generated by diagnostic technologies, medical records systems and clinical trials. Health data analysts look for trends and actionable insights in data. They analyze and visualize the data before handing it off to relevant stakeholders. Once they have done the analysis and data visualization, their work is done.
On the other hand, health informaticists turn data into real-world change in health care processes, policies and procedures. They apply the actionable insights unearthed in data to meet specific project or organizational goals. MSHI candidates at the University of Pittsburgh learn not only the data handling skills but also the strategic decision-making skills necessary to excel in this field.
According to the American Medical Informatics Association, “data analytics involves the actual analysis of the data, and informatics is the application of that information.” Health informaticists have a direct impact on operations in the health care industry. Their work makes health care delivery and health services better for everyone involved.
Health informatics accomplishes things that traditional medicine and health management haven’t been able to achieve on their own. The field applies technologies such as machine learning and predictive analytics to electronic health records (EHRs) and other health care data to identify areas of improvement that benefit patients, practitioners, researchers and health systems.
Although the field is relatively new, health informatics has already impacted medical practice. Research shows that health informatics prevents medication errors, improves patient outcomes and expands the reach of clinical trials. It also supports the development of custom medical treatments and may contribute to increased health equity.
The potential of informatics to transform health care for the better isn’t all that motivates professionals to pursue training in this field. Here are nine more reasons to pursue an informatics master’s degree:
Health informatics encompasses many different career paths, which can make calculating average informaticist salaries difficult. According to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) 2019 U.S. Salary Survey Report, the average salary for health informatics professionals was about $84,000, but informatics salaries vary based on location, experience, title, responsibilities and education.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) broadly estimates that more than 90% of workers in this and related fields earn more than $60,000. They also estimate that the median annual income for people in the field is about $104,000—more than double the median income for all occupations. Some professionals in the field earn significantly more. Chief Medical Information Officers, for instance, who oversee information technology in the health care industry at the highest level, earn about $138,000.
What is certain is that health informaticists can command high salaries with their skills. The high earning potential in this field makes the MSHI a good investment for anyone thinking about a career switch.
The BLS predicts the health services management field will grow by 32% between now and 2030, but health informatics, in particular, has a promising future. Health care organizations created an estimated 2,134 exabytes (a single exabyte is one billion gigabytes) of data in 2020, and this data has tremendous potential for health care organizations equipped to leverage it. Organizations are in desperate need of qualified professionals to help categorize, analyze and make sense of health care data, and it’s likely the health care industry will hire an army of qualified health informaticists over the coming decade to turn all that data into insights that improve patient care. MSHI graduates will have an edge in competitive employment markets.
Health informaticists do all kinds of work, depending on their interests, specialty areas and strengths. If you’re more interested in the data science side of the field, you can work with Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence to produce actionable insights. If you like to work on less abstract problems, you can use those insights to make decisions that affect public health for the better. You can even use an MSHI to become a health care leader in administration, research or operations.
Pitt’s MS in Health Informatics graduates are sought after by hospitals, medical practices, health care startups, government agencies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. They work in health care organizations like Allegheny Health Network and Loma Linda University Medical Center, insurers like Cigna and Gateway Health, and health information technology firms like Epic Systems Corporation and HM Health Solutions.
Health care has a reputation for poor work-life balance. Clinicians often work long shifts on their feet during which they deal with complex cases and make tough decisions. Health informaticists, meanwhile, work in a more comfortable office setting during regular business hours. Although every job has stressful components, informatics careers tend to be less stressful than patient care roles or even administrative roles.
Many of the skills that health informaticists use are transferable from other careers—especially careers in information technology and analytics. Soft skills like communication, interpersonal and critical thinking skills are extremely valuable in health informatics. You can develop these skills with any background. If you’re thinking about switching careers, you’ve probably already mastered several of them.
Hard skills like data management, programming and an understanding of things like machine learning and cloud computing can open up unique career paths in health informatics. If you don’t have these particular skills yet, Pitt’s MSHI program will teach you what you need to know to launch a career in health informatics, with or without a background in health care.
Health informatics is a field that can positively impact individual health, population health and the health care industry. As an informaticist, you’ll have abundant opportunities to tackle interesting problems in your day-to-day work life. For example, you might use analytics to develop policies to ensure that patient data is accurate, accessible and secure; measure the effectiveness of different patient care procedures to help health care organizations establish best practices; or build and implement public health tracking tools like COVID dashboards to combat future pandemics.
Health informatics uses many new technologies. Today, health informaticists can expect to use tools like artificial intelligence and cloud computing to process Big Data sets. Some use advanced cybersecurity systems to protect confidential patient information or work with data generated by advanced medical imaging technology to improve patient diagnostics. It will most likely be informaticists and professionals trained in informatics who lead the charge in implementing the next generation of health care data technologies.
Health informaticists work with a wide range of emerging technologies, but that doesn’t mean you have to be familiar with all of them. The breadth of this field has led to the growth of specialty areas. Masters in health informatics jobs across specialties typically fall into three silos—analytical, technological and managerial—but there are numerous specialty areas within each. Whether you’re interested in data analytics, health information technology, leadership or the business side of health care, you can work in subfields of health informatics such as consumer health informatics, clinical research informatics, pharmacy informatics and EMR management.
At Pitt, you can customize your master’s degree program experience by choosing one of three MSHI tracks: General Health Informatics, Data Science or Health Care Supervision and Management. You can also earn a certificate in data analytics, health information cybersecurity, leadership or revenue cycle management while earning your MS in Health Informatics.
Even non-clinical careers in the health care industry are about taking care of patients and saving lives. Studies suggest that the thoughtful use of information technology in medicine can reduce the cost of clinical care, make patients safer and positively affect health care outcomes. Launching a career in health informatics is one way to play a beneficial role in patient care without going to medical school.
The first step toward switching careers to health informatics is learning as much as possible about the field. The next is to enroll in an MSHI program that will give you the technical skills to manage data acquisition, organization, storage and analysis, plus the medical knowledge to contribute value in medical practices, health networks, insurance companies, research labs and public health organizations.
This degree will give you all of the skills you need to transition into informatics from your current career. All you need to apply for the MSHI at the University of Pittsburgh is a bachelor’s degree in any field with a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA. You don’t have to quit your current job to pursue this degree because Pitt’s MSHI classes are typically held on weekday evenings. The program can be completed entirely online and is an excellent option for those who want flexibility and work/life balance.
The program can take anywhere between 16 and 24 months to complete, depending on whether you enroll part-time or full-time. Once you have your degree in informatics, you can choose a career direction that makes sense, given your background and ambitions. For example, if you currently work in information technology, you might look for job opportunities related to your previous career. On the other hand, if you have a background in business management, you can use an MSHI to launch a career in health information leadership. In other words, once you decide to move into informatics, how you use your new skills will be entirely up to you.
Apply now to earn your MSHI at the University of Pittsburgh, and in less than two years, you can gain the knowledge and credentials to become part of the informatics revolution.